Open RA E

THE PIXEL ART OF WAR

PC & Tech Authority - - FUTURES - An­thony Ford­ham

ach of us, as gamers, has that mo­ment in our gam­ing ed­u­ca­tion where we learn the con­cept of “over­pow­ered” and “un­bal­anced”, “spam­ming” and “rush­ing”. For many, it was StarCraft that taught these con­cepts. Oth­ers learned from team­based shoot­ers, per­haps even an MMO or two.

For gamers who came of gam­ing-age in the 1990s, it was West­wood’s real-time strat­egy games. Tech­ni­cally, these be­gan with Dune II in 1992, but that game was very much a prim­i­tive fore­bear of the con­text-sen­si­tive-cur­sor games we take for granted to­day. I mean, in Dune II you had to go to a whole di†er­ent screen to choose which tank to build!

No, the real ur-RTS was Com­mand & Con­quer. With its fan­ci­ful near-fu­ture set­ting on an Earth in­fected with an alien crys­tal called Tiberium, it in­tro­duced such time­less con­cepts as the Mam­moth Tank, NOD at­tack-bikes, and of course sand­bags.

Oh those sand­bags. Due to a pro­gram­ming over­sight, to beat the AI in Com­mand & Con­quer, all a player needed to do was build a line of sand­bags across the map. En­emy units would ar­rive at the sand­bags and just... stop. They didn’t try to shoot through. They just sat there.

In C&C’s fu­ture-of-a-time­ma­nip­u­lated-past se­quel, Red Alert, the prob­lem wasn’t dumb AI but ba­sic bal­ance. Soviet play­ers, with a lit­tle care­ful early-game de­fence, could tur­tle up, build cash, and then spam out dozens of Mam­moth Tanks which would then just roll across the bat­tle­field.

See, this was in the days be­fore vari­able-di”culty AIs, and be­fore the likes of Bliz­zard and... well, Bliz­zard al­most ex­clu­sively, turned “bal­ance” from an af­ter­thought into an art.

Even­tu­ally West­wood was bought by EA, and af­ter a few more ti­tles, it was fully ab­sorbed into the EA-gestalt, and the beloved West­wood logo fi­nally faded to black in 2003. Even­tu­ally, in 2007 and 2008, EA re­leased C&C and Red Alert as free­ware (pre­sum­ably to boost first C&C 3 and then Red Alert 3). Which is where Open RA comes in.

OLD IS NEW AGAIN

This com­mu­nity project, ini­tially hosted on GitHub and now with its own site at www.openra.net, started not long af­ter C&C first went free. Part of it is about mod­ernising the ren­derer. See, C&C ran in a mere 640x480 pix­els. Red Alert, as a Win­dows 95 game, could run at 800 x 600. But nei­ther res­o­lu­tion suits a mod­ern desk­top.

A com­pletely new ren­derer runs the games at the player’s na­tive res­o­lu­tion and as­pect-ra­tio, and for own­ers of 4K dis­plays, a “pixel dou­bling” mode is also avail­able. The GUI too is over­hauled – it brings up­grades from 1998’s Dune 2000 and tabs for switch­ing be­tween struc­tures, de­fence, in­fantry, ve­hi­cles, air­craft and navy, in­stead of re­quir­ing the player to scroll up and down long col­umns of icons.

The re­sult is a game that no longer looks dated. Thanks to half a decade of “pixel art” indie re­leases, Open RA now looks like an art­fully retro RTS, rather than a 20 year-old game. It’s crisp, it runs fast and scrolls smoothly, and there are all the mul­ti­player and skir­mish fea­tures we now ex­pect – choose a map, choose a spawn-point, set your team to any colour you want, find friend on­line, join leagues, record your matches etc.

All this is be­cause, in­stead of three sep­a­rate ap­pli­ca­tions, Open RA is an en­gine for “West­wood-style RTS”. Each of the cur­rently sup­ported games – C&C, Red Alert and Dune 2000 – is loaded as a “mod”.

FREE, TO DO WHAT YOU WANT

And it’s all free. From scratch, a new player can down­load the Open RA client, start it, and then load the various tile­sets and other as­sets re­quired to play their

choice of RTS. Third-party mods are sup­ported too, and there’s an in­creas­ing list on ModDB and other repos­i­to­ries.

Even ba­sic mu­sic is free. In fact, the only as­sets that re­quire the orig­i­nal game discs are the fa­mous FMV mis­sion brief­ings and cer­tain parts of the orig­i­nal sound­track.

But Open RA goes a lot fur­ther than that. The orig­i­nal games were great fun, but they come from an age where game de­sign­ers were still fig­ur­ing out what RTS even was. Units ex­isted be­cause they were cool, rather than be­cause they cre­ated in­ter­est­ing tac­ti­cal sit­u­a­tions. Maps were pretty ba­sic, and could be capri­ciously asym­met­ri­cal.

Ideas like “ex­pand­ing to your nat­u­ral” or area-con­trol had not yet been es­tab­lished. Early units like ba­sic in­fantry of­ten played no role in the end-game. Spammy or cheesy tac­tics had no real de­fence beyond a rock-pa­per-scis­sors bat­tle of out-guess­ing the other guy.

MUSK-VA­RI­ETY AI

That’s all gone. If you’re a Red Alert fan from way back, and you jump into Open RA and fire up a skir­mish, and let mus­cle­mem­ory take over... you’ll be crunched by the AI in­side five min­utes.

In the 1990s, West­wood’s AI would save up a few units for an early rush, and then spend the rest of the match send­ing units af­ter unit in a line, like lambs to the slaugh­ter. Block choke points with Tesla Coils, pop in a few SAM sites to de­ter the very in­fre­quent air at­tacks, and it was all so easy.

Now, the com­puter com­bines units in artful ways, and is a dab hand at the stand-o“ ar­tillery bar­rage. It ex­pands its base, up­grades its econ­omy, and is gen­er­ally tough to new play­ers.

Of course, a few dozen hours in and its lim­i­ta­tions be­come ap­par­ent, es­pe­cially the way it strug­gles to prop­erly flank an op­po­nent (though it does flank, some­thing the orig­i­nal game could never have done). And so it’s time to step up to hu­man op­po­nents via mul­ti­player. And once again, vet­er­ans from 1996 are in for a ter­ri­ble, ter­ri­ble shock.

C&C games al­ways used to be a techrush. Get a bunch of air­fields up, then strike the en­emy’s Con­struc­tion Yard. With no way to re­build, it would then be­come a war of at­tri­tion. Or just build dozens of tanks and have a punch­ing match in the cen­tre. Last tank stand­ing wins. Lit­er­ally: the way C&C de­manded you de­stroy ev­ery sin­gle unit and struc­ture... most of the match could be spent chas­ing a sin­gle sol­dier around the map. And woe be­tide if the fi­nal unit was a Stealth Tank... ugh.

REBORN MUL­TI­PLAYER

In 2017, mul­ti­player is far more sav­age. Sea­soned op­po­nents fever­ishly train in­fantry­men, send en­gi­neers to cap­ture oil der­ricks for an econ­omy boost (a fea­ture bor­rowed from Red Alert 2), scout with air­craft, as­sem­ble APCs in a “star of death” be­fore us­ing Iron Cur­tain in­vul­ner­a­bil­ity to crush an en­tire in­fantry army in one go...

As for the third fully-sup­ported game, Dune 2000, this up­date of the orig­i­nal Ar­rakis-based RTS has fewer units but makes up for that with the dy­namic of sand­worms eat­ing any­thing fool­ish enough to stand around on the sand for too long.

LIV­ING THE DREAM

So the game - all three games, re­ally - is faster, more ag­gres­sive, harder, and it stim­u­lates the strat­egy-gland far more e“ec­tively than the orig­i­nals. It is the RTS equiv­a­lent of that su­per-strong pot all the Boomer pot-smok­ers warn us about.

The Open RA com­mu­nity con­tin­ues to hack away at the old West­wood games. Next on the list – and al­ready avail­able in a sort of Beta – is Tiberian (sic) Sun. This highly-an­tic­i­pated se­quel to the orig­i­nal C&C looked amaz­ing in 1999 (coloured light­ing!) but it had a lot of tech­ni­cal is­sues, and many el­e­ments had to go in “half baked” due to pres­sure from pub­lisher EA.So the hope is that Open RA will re­vi­talise Tiberian Sun as it has both C&C and Red Alert. And given how this free, lightweight RTS en­gine has given us hun­dreds more hours of joy with a se­ries of games that we thought had been con­signed to the tomb of Aban­don­ware a decade ago, it’s pos­si­ble they might just pull it o“.

jump in and fire up a skir­mish, and let mus­cle­mem­ory take over.”

Ad­di­tional mods change the game en­tirely. Here’s a Medieval War­fare ver­sion

The cult se­quel Tiberian Dawn is in Beta right now

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